The Anglican Church of Australia draws on the rich social and religious heritage of Britain. It seems probable that Christianity was transported to the Roman colony of Britain by soldiers and traders who shared their faith with the local inhabitants. While its specific origins are unclear, there was a Church in Britain by the year 208AD. The first recorded English martyr was Alban who died in 303. When the Roman armies withdrew from Britain and the country was subsequently overrun by the Picts, Scots and Saxons, the British people fled to the south and west of the island, taking the Church and its teaching with them. In 563, Columba left Ireland with twelve companions to establish a monastery on the remote island of Iona from which they conducted a successful mission to the tribes of the mainland. With the Church divided for several centuries by political instability and tribal warfare, the unifying figure was St Augustine who was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to centralise and reorganise the English Church under the jurisdiction of Rome in 597. The Latin customs differed in many respects from those of the Celts, and it was not until the Council of Whitby in 664 that the northern Christians decided to adopt Roman customs. From that date there may be said to have existed a ‘Church of England’.
The English Church continued to grow through the Middle Ages (AD600-1300) and showed great independence while acknowledging the authority of the Papacy. In the later Middle Ages, a succession of corrupt and worldly popes used their position to gain wealth and power. The Church, the most important institution in Western Europe, gradually accumulated great wealth while the clergy became involved with civil affairs and political intrigue. To the English, the Pope ceased to resemble the Chief Shepherd of Christ’s Flock. Rather, he appeared to be a greedy and oppressive foreign monarch. From around 1400 onwards, people began calling for reform. They wanted the Bible available in a language they could understand and senior clergy made more accountable for their actions. King Henry VIII was hostile to reform until personal circumstances led him to exploit calls for religious reform to achieve political ends. The relationship between the Papacy and the English Church was finally ruptured in the first half of the sixteenth century.
The effect of reform movements led by Martin Luther and John Calvin in Europe when coupled with the desire of King Henry VIII to secure a divorce from his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, led to a major re-think of doctrines and customs. These pressures altered, among other things, the social and political standing of the Church. The reformers demanded that the Church be purged of heretical teachings and unbiblical practices gradually introduced during the previous millennium. They asserted that these additions obscured Christ’s teaching and deformed his Church. The ‘Reformation’ of the English Church was based on two key principles.
First, the reformers held that each national church was independent and subject to civil law. The English monarch became ‘Supreme Head of the Church’ and papal power was rejected. The English church claimed the right to order its own life. This included the forms and patterns of corporate worship with liturgies written in words ordinary people could understand. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior Anglican cleric, was to preside as the ‘first among equals’ in the official or ‘Established’ Church. As his formal authority was limited to his own diocese, his position and role was nothing like that of the Pope. The English believed, like the Orthodox Eastern Church, that it was possible to be Catholics without the Pope. [The title ‘bishop’ comes from the Greek episcope word meaning ‘overseer’ or ‘superintendent’. The term ‘diocese’ is another Greek word and refers to administrative area. It defines the geographic limits of a bishop’s authority].
Second, the Church could be reformed and still claim historical continuity. The reformed Church retained the Canonical Scriptures [those books of the Bible acknowledged as divinely-inspired and authoritative in the experience of the Church], the historic Creeds, a three-fold order of ministry with bishops, priests and deacons together with a corporate life centred around the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. [The sacraments are visible symbols affirming Christian understanding of God’s invisible but very real activity in the world]. Only those things which were contrary to Scripture were abandoned by the English Church. The ancient Church in England became the reformed Church of England and still claimed to be Apostolic, Catholic, Reformed and Protestant.